TCS Daily

Don't Count On It

By Iain Murray - April 7, 2003 12:00 AM

While the American media focuses on the spectacular successes of coalition forces in Iraq and the British media asks questions about "friendly fire" incidents, the rest of the world is shown images of devastation in Baghdad marketplaces. To much of the world, the Coalition victory is coming at too high a price. They see and hear much about civilian casualties of war. Yet a closer look at the issue suggests that the problem is being exaggerated even beyond the information Iraqi propagandists disseminate.

The "go to" source for much of the information on Iraqi civilian casualties is the Iraq Body Count web site. Researched primarily by two British activists, Hamit Dardagan and Professor John Sloboda, it purports to offer a range of estimates for the number of civilian casualties in the war, including a "minimum" and a "maximum". It also offers web applets allowing interested parties to place a counter displaying both estimates on their own web sites. Three of the four on offer come complete with a graphic of a B-2 stealth bomber dropping a payload.

One of the consultants on the project is Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire. Professor Herold made a name for himself during the Afghan conflict by producing an estimate of civilian casualties there that was about four times greater than any estimate produced by other agencies. As I wrote here over a year ago, the main problem with Professor Herold's methodology was that it gave too much credence to propaganda issued by the Taliban regime. This was particularly problematic when members of the official Taliban press agency publicly admitted that they had made the numbers up. While Professor Herold made headlines with his figure of around 4000 casualties in the Afghan conflict, an Associated Press review after the conflict put the number in the hundreds, and the Massachusetts-based Project for Defense Alternatives commented, "the present study finds it difficult to reconcile a civilian death toll from bombing that is much higher than1300 with the conditions being reported currently by journalists on the ground in Afghanistan."

The Iraq Body Count site organizers are sensitive to this criticism. They say that is why they have instituted the "minimum" and "maximum" categories. Yet their project's methodology does not seem to have completely rid itself of the taint of propaganda. They say:

Casualty figures are derived from a comprehensive survey of online media reports and eyewitness accounts. Where these sources report differing figures, the range (a minimum and a maximum) are given.

The range of sources contains mostly reputable Western media outlets, although it also contains the satellite channel Al Jazeera, which has been criticized for carrying Iraqi propaganda uncritically, and several sources such as Agence France-Presse, the Times of India and the Hindustan Times who often gave credence to Taliban sources during the Afghan conflict. It is therefore likely that a lot of Iraqi propaganda will be included in at least one of the two estimates of the total death toll.

It is not the sources, however, that are the real problem. The main trouble is that, while the conflict is going on, there is only one real source of information on civilian casualties, which is the Iraqi government. As is emblazoned on the web site's front page, General Tommy Franks has said "We don't do body counts." So when it is alleged that a bomb has hit a marketplace, the only real source of a number for civilian casualties is what the Iraqi spokesmen say. Occasionally, a report may get out of Baghdad querying this number. Yet, equally, initial reports may say something higher than the Iraqis later claim. It is therefore likely that the "minimum" figure is likely to be inflated, although the "maximum" figure is probably accurate as an upper range for claims about how many have been killed.

For example, American blogger Bob McGrew noticed that the Iraq Body Count site contained a maximum figure of 15 and a minimum figure of 14 for deaths in one of the marketplace explosions. Yet the Pentagon was unable to say whether or not its missiles caused the incident. Should this not have been counted as a minimum figure of 0? McGrew asked the project and received the following reply:

War is pretty messy about intent, and from the victim's point of view there wouldn't be much point in getting into that. Probably, the better measure is found in American criminal law, where the responsibility for consequences is assigned to the party initiating the conflict. Thus, if someone injures or kills someone else while acting in response to an attack on themselves, the responsibility for the consequences is applied to the initial attacker.

As McGrew commented, this means:

that their "minimum" numbers are completely useless as a measure of civilians killed by allied attacks. This methodology allows Iraq an almost complete freedom of action in how they kill civilians, as effectively any civilian deaths that occur as a result of the war will be attributed to allied action. As seems likely, the Iraqis will attribute all of their mistakes (as well as any deliberate killings of civilians) to allied action, and the Iraq Body Count project will effectively accept that as gospel truth.

But even in cases where an allied bomb did cause casualties, the minimum figure is still subject to exaggeration. If the Iraqi information minister says 50 civilians were killed by an allied bomb and that is picked up uncritically by Al-Jazeera and, say, The Times of India, it goes in both the minimum and the maximum count. It is only if someone else disagrees, such as a reporter on the scene saying "yes, a bomb did go astray and killed 5 people," and that is then reported by two sources that the minimum figure is adjusted downwards. If no other mention is made of the alleged attack elsewhere, then the figure of 50 remains in the minimum column. The result, of course, is a "minimum" figure that is anything but.

While the Iraq Body Count site deserves some credit for attempting to answer a public need for information about the number of civilian casualties, its methodology lets it down. On April 2, the site was reporting a minimum of 569 civilian casualties. Yet the same day, according to the Associated Press, the Iraqi government itself was quoting a figure of "nearly 500" civilians killed.

As is usual with war, we shall not know the true story until well after the event. In the meantime, while the Iraq Body Count's maximum figure is useful as an estimate of the total of all claims made about civilian deaths in the conflict, its minimum figure is probably not robust enough to be relied on by journalists, policy-makers or anyone concerned about accuracy in data.

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